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Why did patrons endow professorships?

Why would a medieval monarch or noble create and endow an academic post: a professorship? What would be his or her motives? In founding the first regius chair (of medicine), according to former regius professor of history at Cambridge, Richard Evans, the Scottish King James IV had evidently hoped to promote culture and scholarship amongst his subjects:

‘James was a famous patron of the arts and sciences, taking an interest in the establishment of Scotland’s first printing press, hanging tapestries in his palaces, patronising poets such as William Dunbar, and giving a Royal Charter to the Edinburgh College of Surgeons in 1506. The Regius professorship was clearly part of his mission to bring Renaissance civilisation to the northern kingdom’.

(Evans, 2013)

Lady Margaret Beaufort, the founder of the first professorships in England, seems to have been similarly motivated. Described by Alison Weir as ‘both a lover of books and a true intellectual’ (Weir, 2001), Lady Margaret was a great patron of academic learning – particularly, reflecting her celebrated piety, scholarship that was focused on religion. But she expected something back. Jones and Underwood, authors of The King’s Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby (1992), note that ‘Lady Margaret’s beneficence nearly always demanded a specific personal return’.

In the sixteenth century, when the Margaret professorships of divinity were founded, academe was intertwined with religion. In the case of religious or theological scholarship, the boundaries between university and church were blurred to the point of often being indistinguishable, and professors – such as John Fisher, Lady Margaret’s confessor and the first appointee of her endowed professorship at Cambridge – were typically (but not always) ordained clergymen. The payback that Lady Margaret expected – indeed, demanded, since it appeared in the small print – from her charitable endowments took the form of prayers: ‘with the theology lectureships there were obligations … to pray on behalf of Margaret’s husband who had died at the end of July 1504, the rest of her family, and the queen [Margaret’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth of York] who had died in February 1503’ (Jones and Underwood, 1992).

King Henry VIII

King Henry VIII

King Henry VIII’s professorship creation was both personally- and politically-motivated. As a highly educated man who, according to David Starkey (2003) ‘prided himself on his intellectual sophistication’, like his brother-in-law, James IV of Scotland, he would have been keen to promote scholarship and academic learning. But, for Henry, the personal had become political. Denied papal approval to divorce his first wife, Katharine of Aragon, he kick-started the English Reformation by breaking from Rome and establishing the Church of England, and his regius professorships were instruments of the political fall-out from this. Just as the 2016 regius professorship initiative was included in the UK government’s Productivity Plan of 2015, if Henry VIII had had such a thing as a Reformation Plan, his professorial endowments would have featured prominently in it. Richard Evans tells us:

‘When the first English Regius chairs were founded, by Henry VIII, they were instruments of his drive to anchor the newly independent Church of England in a national academic culture, wresting major appointments away from the Church and putting them in the hands of the state. In 1540, he founded the Regius chair of civil law at Oxford to replace the teaching of Roman canon law with the teaching of, among other things, English law’.

(Evans, 2013)

Whilst institutional donations had been made to the University of Edinburgh from the Lords of Session, Faculty of Advocates and Writers to the Signet, who, in 1590, collectively contributed £2,000 to support a chair of law, one of Edinburgh University’s earliest personal benefactors was Bartilmo Somerville, who endowed the chair in divinity in 1639.  Somerville was a wealthy Edinburgh money-lender who had accumulated a large private fortune. The University of Edinburgh website tells us that:

‘In the words of Michael Lynch, Somerville “seems profitably to have combined piety and usury”, not only endowing the Chair of Divinity but leaving 10,000 merks to the “good cause of the Covenant”. In December 1639, Somerville mortified 26,000 merks to the University of Edinburgh, of which 20,000 were for the endowment of a Chair of Divinity, and 6,000 to buy Sir James Skene's house of Curryhill to serve as a dwelling for the Professor’